Why dissidents are still important today | Books | DW | 03.10.2019
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Why dissidents are still important today

Thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a new book portrays different dissidents. Author Marko Martin told DW why he decided to explore their role during that era — and how they can inspire us now.

Born in 1970, Marko Martin grew up in former East Germany, where he was a conscientious objector and wasn't allowed to study for political reasons. He left the GDR in May 1989. 

The writer has published travel books as well as stories and novels set in Israel, Cuba and Mexico. Now his new book, Dissidentisches Denken. Reisen zu den Zeugen eines Zeitalters (Dissident thinking. Travels to the witnesses of an era) offers another type of journey, traveling back in time with intellectuals including Czeslaw Milosz, a fugitive from Poland, as well as Czech-born writer Milan Kundera, German author Edgar Hilsenrath, Brecht scholar Horst Bienek, Israeli novelist Aharon Appelfeld and East German writer Jürgen Fuchs. They are among the 22 dissident thinkers portrayed in the book.

DW: Thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, you published a book that revolves around the thoughts and actions of dissidents. Why now?

 Marko Martin (Marko Martin)

Author Marko Martin

Marko Martin: I've been concerned with the topic ever since I came to West Germany in May 1989 and got to know people whose biographies were anything but straightforward.

There was Jürgen Fuchs, who was expatriated to West Germany in 1977 by the Stasi, there was Reiner Kunze, a poet who had also left the GDR in 1977 for political reasons, and other dissidents who had already turned their backs on communism in the 1930s under the impression of the Hitler-Stalin Pact, like Hans Sahl, a poet I visited in Tübingen.

Why are these dissidents still of interest today?

I think it's more topical than ever as we see democracy come under fire again. Many people are surprised and ask "why now?" or "it can't be that bad, right?"

If you read books by Hans Sahl, Jürgen Fuchs, Arthur Koestler, Manes Sperber, George Orwell and Czeslaw Milosz, you learn that disaster is actually the norm. You realize that phases of harmony and alleged stability never last. That's why people should expect and develop their thoughts on fissures and collapse. What we are experiencing today is not that new. Reading the books of the 1930s writers who were trapped between Hitler and Stalin and experienced a lot of bad things could also sharpen our dissident reflexes today.

Pannach, Kunert, Biermann und Fuchs (picture-alliance/AP Images)

East German writers Gerulf Pannach, Christian Kunert, singer Wolf Biermann and writer Jürgen Fuchs in West Berlin in 1977

What is the difference between people who are in the opposition and dissidents?

The Latin word "dissidere" means "to disagree with." My book is not only about ex-communists, but about dissident thinking — dissident in the sense of moving away from what is expected, from authoritarian structures. 

That is why I believe that a dissident disposition and attitude toward life did not disappear with the end of the Cold War — it continues. Just look at Hong Kong. Whether you call people dissidents or oppositionists doesn't matter, the point is not to be intimidated by the unreasonable demands of power.

In the West, dissidents from East Germany and Eastern Europe were often thought to be conservative, even right-wing. Was that a correct assessment?

Being anti-communist doesn't automatically mean you're right-wing. Let's remember what Daniel Cohn-Bendit said after the fall of the Berlin Wall: "The left of the future must be anti-communist, or it will be nothing." A leftist rebelling against hierarchies should automatically be against authoritarian regimes, be it the Brezhnev regime in the 1970s or the nationalist Putin regime today; this is not even about the right-left divide anymore. We are currently finding out that the old left and the new right get along really well concerning their position vis-à-vis a liberal civil society.

What role did East German dissident intellectuals play in West German society?

People like Jürgen Fuchs and the Czech Pavel Kohout were liberal anti-communists. They made effective use of the opportunity to speak out in public, and unlike many Western leftists who took it for granted, they appreciated it. I believe this flexible thinking can still be relevant today.

Vaclav Havel und Frantisek Kriegel (picture-alliance/dpa/CTK/L Taylor)

Czech playwright Vaclav Havel and dissident Frantisek Kriegel

What significance did these dissidents have for East Germany, or the former Czechoslovakia?

If you take a pessimistic outlook, you could say people like Vaclav Havel left no traces in contemporary Czech society, that they were outsiders at the time and the fact that Havel then became president only hid the fact hat his ethical reflections hardly found food for thought in Czech society.

But the thousands of young people who gather in the Czech Republic today to protest against a corrupt government are also the children of Vaclav Havel readers. Blog entries show they are rediscovering Havel, Josef Skorecky, Milan Kundera and Pavel Kohout, writers who under completely different, more difficult conditions refused to shut up the face of an outrageous government.

That stubborn impulse is still there. It is only forgotten or rediscovered from time to time with varying intensity. That is why, despite everything, I am very optimistic. Nothing is lost! That summarizes my book: Nothing is lost, everything is recorded, and must continue to be recorded. It's  trust in memory, and in words.

What did the dissidents mean for East Germany?

In East Germany, dissidents like Jürgen Fuchs and Wolf Biermann only reached people in a certain section of society. Even in semi-critical, culture-conscious circles, people were more likely to read books by Heiner Müller, Christa Wolf, Christoph Hein and Volker Braun. I don't want to bring up cowardice, but there is this attitude and way of thinking that criticizes civilization rather than address dictatorship.

If you listen to Herta Müller or ask around in Eastern Europe and mention the names Volker Braun and Christa Wolf, the intellectuals there mock the allegedly recalcitrant East German opposition. And I would add, quite rightly so.

Back in East Germany, how significant were writings by East German dissidents who had left for the West?

They had great significance for the Stasi secret police that spied on these people in the West, and they had great significance for people affiliated with the church and for conscientious objectors — the opposition that formed a core group when millions eventually took to the streets in 1989, the people who stood out when it was still risky. These early opposition members read Jürgen Fuchs' works, they took to heart his appeal to object.

I must say, however, it's not just a question of a person's disposition; first and foremost it is a question of whether there is a literary-aesthetic added value, about how interesting a dissident attitude is in a literary work. It's not just about well-intentioned didactics.

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